Friday, June 4, 2004

Eugene Ruggles 1935 - 2004

Gene Ruggles  and Shirley Kaufman in Petaluma

Gene Ruggles was an old friend of my mom's from North Beach. My mom, she got around, sometimes she'd bring her City friends home to meet my grannie and me in Forest Knolls. Gene Ruggles and my grannie got on like a house afire. She would make Irish sodabread and brew a pot of strong tea liberally laced with Irish whiskey, which she kept hidden in the bedroom closet, for Gene.

They'd talk of things Irish and politics until the sun slipped behind Mt Barnabe to bathe in the ocean. Then, when the stars studded the sky, my mother and Gene would stagger down Arroyo Road, half-lit, to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. more than a mile away, and hitch back to the mysterious City. Sometimes I wonder what they talked about as they wandered down that dark country road to civilization.

When I became a practicing publishing poet, ca. 1980, in Forestville, Gene had moved to Petaluma, we became reacquainted at poetry readings, and I occasionally produced a few readings for him at Sonoma State, Cotati Cabaret, and for the Russian River Writers' Guild, but he was a liability—falling down drunk, so I never knew what to expect. No one could keep him sober. It was always a harrowing experience.

Gene used to call me up late at night, out of the blue, roaring drunk on Red Mountain, to have a little chat. One time he called to tell me that Joseph Brodsky had died. The evening's libation had run dry, so he sought solace over the phone. Brodsky wasn't that old, he said. Only 55. Heart failure, he said, but his stout heart never failed him. Nor did Gene's tired heart fail him until he was evicted from the Petaluma Hotel, right after his open heart surgery.

After Gene died, everyone jumped on the poetry bandwagon producing memorial readings and benefits for him, they, who had largely ignored him during his lifetime, and didn't offer help when he was down and out and desperately needed their support. They were pompously making the poetry rounds, as if it were a badge of honor to host a reading in honor of Gene. It was as if he were more important to them dead, than alive.

Last time I read with Gene was at the Cafe International, in 1997. It was too soon after my car accident. I had PTSD, and I couldn't control my breath (a punctured lung), so necessary for reading poetry aloud to a large audience. Stars on the edges of my eyes, I didn't know whether to pass out, or run for the hills. It was a long time before I was fully healed.

I dropped out of the poetry scene. I don't think I ever saw Gene again after that reading. Of course, because I had fallen off the poetry map, no one even thought to invite me to read at Gene's memorial readings. So I never got closure.

Sometime, late at night, when the phone rings, and there's no one there, I think it's Gene on the other end of the line, calling up to say hello.

TYGER, TYGER

TYGER, TYGER

The moon’s tears splashed into the ink dark lake,
a harvest of light rippling the sky
She leans down, offers it up to the stars.
They say Ithuriel’s spears watered heaven with his tears.
They say Blake saw God in an apple tree when he was four.
He spent the rest of his life looking up in the orchards
But God was busy saving Ireland, the land of saints and poets.
And the fey world fled with their celestial constellations in tow
to take root in Blake’s orchard. The apple fell far from the tree
and flourished in Avalon, Anglesey, the Isle of apples.
Amid the oak groves, druids climbed towards the sky
harvesting mistletoe with golden scythes under an equinox moon
But this island was their last stand, their last resting place
Before the Romans drove them underground for good.
They became fossil stars trapped beneath the skin of the earth.

6/04, 9/08